What Is Your Nose Telling You?

August 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Snot and Mucus Decoded: The Meaning of Snot Colors

Snot, boogers, mucus, a runny nose – whatever you call it, it is still gross. But did you know the color of your snot can tell you a lot about what is going on inside your body?

That’s why doctors ask extensive questions about your mucus color and texture. Snot color can be a clue to what is causing your runny nose or that gunk you’re coughing up.

There’s no cure for the cold, but sometimes you might need to see a doctor depending on the trail of clues your mucus is leaving behind.

Clear, white, yellow, green, brown, red, or gray – what does your snot say about you?

Do you know what boogers are? Boogers are made of dirt and dust that have gotten stuck inside your nose. The mucus covers it and it eventually dries up inside your nose.   

What Is Mucus Anyway?

Mucus lines the nose and other parts of the body and acts as a guard against bad stuff that might enter the body such as dirt and germs. Mucus is made of water, cells, salts, and mucin, which is a glycoprotein. Mucus producing membranes line the respiratory tract and other parts of the body.

Mucus in different parts of the body has different names. These are the upper-respiratory terms:

  • Snot – pretty much refers to just the mucus coming from the nose.
  • Phlegm – the mucus in your throat and anything that you might cough up.
  • Sputum – a mucus/saliva mix coughed up.
  • Postnasal drip – mucus that flows from the nasal cavity down the throat.

The color and texture of mucus can indicate what is going on in the body and can be signs of a virus, infection, or other problems. Read below to find out what the color of your mucus may mean.

Clear Mucus

Normal mucus is a clear color and is a thick, viscous liquid similar to the texture of glue. You probably don’t have any infection or virus if your snot is still clear. As long as your body isn’t producing too much or too little mucus, and as long your mucus is the right texture, you should be in good health snot-wise.

If your body is producing an excess of mucus, the likely cause is allergies. Talk to your doctor about appropriate treatment.

The Phlegm-Dairy Connection

White Mucus

Snot that is a white color typically comes from eating and drinking dairy products. Fat in dairy products can make the mucus thicker and feel stickier. If you have a cold or sinus infection, refraining from dairy can help with congestion and easier breathing if your body is producing thick or white mucus. Otherwise, the presence of white mucus alone is no cause for alarm and is considered normal.

Did you know that the body produces about a litre of mucus a day? Talk about being snotty.

Yellow Mucus

If you have yellow snot, it can mean that you have a virus or a sinus infection. Light or bright yellow mucus typically means that your body is fighting off something, most likely a cold. The mucus color is usually brighter at first, possibly even being a neon color. It typically darkens over a few days. Staphylococcus aureus bacteria typically produce a golden yellow colored mucus. Dark yellow phlegm could mean bronchitis or another type of infection in the chest.

Yellow mucus does not necessarily mean that you need to go to the doctor. It just means you’re your body is fighting against something. The best cure is your body’s own defenses. Remember, antibiotics will only clear up bacterial infections. Viral infections just have to run their course. There is no cure for the common cold yet.

See a doctor if the symptoms last longer than a week or worsen. Fever, headache, cough with mucus can also be signs to see a doctor if they last for more than a few days.

Green Mucus

Green mucus can signify a bacterial or fungal infection. The green color is produced by a type of white blood cell that responds to infections and inflammations. When the white blood cells die, they burst releasing a green pigment. The green pigment mixes with the mucus giving it the green color. The color is usually brighter at first and darkens over a few days.

When your sinuses become inflamed, they swell. This causes mucus to become trapped in your nasal passages. Over time bacteria and fungi can begin to grow in the mucus. This is when you might need antibiotics.

If the symptoms have lasted more than a week or seem to be getting worse, see a doctor, especially if you are experiencing fever, cough with mucus, headache, and sinus pressure.

Blue Mucus

Mucus can turn blue because of a certain bacteria called Pseudomonas pyocyanea. About 1 in 10,000 people will typically have blue snot. If your mucus has changed to a thick, blue color that has lasted several days, it is probably time to see a doctor.

Blue mucus can also happen if you have inhaled blue powder or something else blue in the air. If this is the case, it should clear up within a day or two.

Red/Reddish Brown Mucus

If your mucus is tinged red or reddish brown, it is usually a sign of blood.  The blood mixes with the mucus giving it the red tone.

The presence of blood is not necessarily a cause for alarm.  It can be caused when the sinuses become inflamed and begin to bleed.  It can also occur because of a sore in the nose.  The tiny blood vessels in the nasal passages can break easily causing blood-tinged mucus.  This can happen if the air is too dry.  Using a saline spray to moisten the nasal passages can help.  Gently blowing and wiping the nose can help prevent sores in the front part of the nose.

Asthmatics often have reddish/pink mucus.  If you are coughing up red or brown phlegm, it could be a sign of bronchitis.  If there is a significant amount of blood that has lasted several days, you should see a doctor to determine the cause of the blood and if any treatment is necessary.

Brown Mucus

Brown or brownish red mucus is typically associated with smokers.  The mucus is mixed with particles from the cigarettes.  Smoking can also irritate nasal passages leading to slight bleeding.  The blood and cigarette bits mix with mucus giving it a brown color.  Coughing up brown/red phlegm can also be caused by smoking.  Smoking less can ease the production of brown mucus and phlegm.

Inhaling dust and dirt can also give mucus a brown tinge.  See section below for more information.

Black/Gray Mucus

Dark colored mucus generally happens from inhaling pollutants in the air. The job of the mucus is to trap dirt or other particles and prevent them from getting further into the body. If there was ash, dirt, dust, smoke, or similar substances in the air, the mucus in your body trapped it. Black or gray mucus happens often in the city because of pollution in the air.

Morning Phlegm/Coughing at Night

If you are coughing up stuff mainly in the mornings or if you are coughing at night, it might actually be acid reflux. The stomach acid can move up your throat as you are lying down. This can cause coughing, phlegm, and a scratchy throat. Some people have acid reflux and never have heartburn or an upset stomach.

Check with your doctor if you think acid reflux might be a possibility. An antacid or acid reducer might help the problem. Raising the head of the bed about five inches also helps to keep the acid in place. Avoid eating before bed.

Fixing the Snot

Typically, a virus begins by producing an abundance of clear mucus. Then the mucus turns a bright yellow/greenish color. The mucus darkens over a period of a few days usually turning a green color. At the end of the virus, the mucus may turn a brown/red color. The mucus should then start clearing up, being less thick till your mucus returns to normal.

Ways to ease your symptoms:

  • Nasal sprays such as saline sprays keep the nasal passages moist.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin the mucus and keep your upper respiratory system moist.
  • Don’t starve a cold. Eating nutritious meals when you’re sick is important. Your body needs the energy to fight off the bug.
  • Tylenol can help with fever and body aches.
  • Ibuprofen will help reduce swelling and any inflammation.
  • Steam and hot liquids can help keep the mucus flowing and ease congestion.
  • Take Mucinex to loosen the phlegm and make coughs more productive.
  • Spit out anything you cough up. Don’t swallow it.
  • Suck on cough drops to keep the throat moist. A spoonful of honey is also good to alleviate cough.
  • If it is allergies, take antihistamines to help alleviate the symptoms.
  • If you have yellow or green snot, see a doctor about antibiotics if symptoms persist more than a few days.
  • Avoid smoking and second hand smoke.

Remember, strange colored mucus doesn’t always mean there is a problem. Colored mucus lasting for several days can be a problem, especially when other symptoms such as fever, headache, and cough are present.

Mucus colors are just an indication, not a precise diagnosis. You can still have an infection even with clear mucus. If you are concerned about something with your body, see a doctor.

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